Category: Sahara Desert
Crossing Borders: I’m No Lawrence
Journal Excerpt: On Location/Sahara Desert
I was attacked by a camel today. I was knocked down from behind while shooting Tuareg nomads who were riding camels against a “Lawrence of Arabia” backdrop. All I remember was a loud belch, the tripod and camera falling to earth and a giant camel toe next to my head as I laid on the ground. My scalp and shirt was wet but it was not blood but camel saliva that was as thick as jello . After dusting myself off and getting back to work I detected an odd smell of coffee grounds mixed with asparagus emanating from my hair and stained shirt. Later tonight I plan to stand in the shower with my clothes on and free myself from camel drool and Sahara sand. My clothes will be dry by morning.
Last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all goes well this will be the money shot – but most of the time it is just plain luck and being in the right place to capture a good image.
The Parting Shot
Crossing Borders: Coca Cola and Roger Rabbit
Journal Entry: March 30, 1999 / Marathon des Sable / Morocco / Sahara Desert.
“This is our fourth day of covering the Marathon des Sable; so far we’ve managed to lose our way, we’ve been blasted by a sand storm, we’ve run out of toilet paper and are now surviving on granola bars, turkey jerky and hot bottles of Coca-Cola. I have no idea how many miles we have traveled or how many times we’ve managed to get stuck in the sand. My driver, Nouh, speaks no English and smokes three packets of Marlboro Lights a day. He’s also fond of breaking wind each time he exits the Land Cruiser.
What I can tell you, should you not already know, is that the Marathon des Sable is a stage race that lasts 7 days and covers 243km/151 miles. To make things even more difficult, each competitor has to carry everything they may need for the duration of the race (apart from their tent) on their backs in a rucksack – their food, clothes, medical kit, sleeping bag, etc. In addition, runners’ water is rationed and handed out at each checkpoint.
The backdrop to this event is the Sahara Desert. Not only is the Sahara the largest desert on earth, covering an area of 3.5 million square miles, (which amounts to 8% of our planet’s surface area), it stretches from the Atlantic Ocean in the west across half of Northern Africa, to the Red Sea. It then extends down to the highlands of Ethiopia with temperatures recorded as high 40° +Celsius / 120° + Fahrenheit. The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.
Depending on whom you ask, the estimated population of the Sahara Desert varies from 2.5 million to 4 million people – so you would think finding a singing rabbit would be easy. Oh contraire.
The singing rabbit is competitor Derek McCarrick of the UK. Mr. McCarrick has been running marathons for Leukemia and Breast Cancer Research for the past 20 years and is still going strong at the age of 73. Mr. McCarrick has personally raised a staggering £200,000 ($ 319,920.00) for charity, an achievement which is all the more impressive as he has completed each race dressed as the cartoon character, Roger Rabbit!
Eureka! On the horizon we spot a lone figure of a man with the head of Roger Rabbit tied to his backpack.
‘I’m the only rabbit in the world that’s run across the Sahara,’ Mr. McCarrick once told me. He also added, ‘People think I’m bonkers!’ In 2008, this former coal miner was awarded the MBE (Order of the British Empire) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. For those who are not British, an MBE award is one of the highest distinctions that can be gained by a British citizen. Not bad for a chap from Minster on the Isle of Sheppey.”
Crossing Borders: Calling All Angels
In mountaineering, there is a phenomenon known as ‘Summit Fever’ in which the heightened anticipation of summiting out weighs all reasoning. It is a step into the Twilight Zone where one’s critical faculties take a leave of absence and reckless decision making begins. The boiling frog story is often used as a metaphor for the inability of people to perceive significant changes that occur gradually – the premise is that if a frog is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, the animal will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
In Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, he describes climbers so intoxicated by the drive to get to the summit that the common sense of survival gets discarded even when exhaustion, dehydration and bad weather becomes overwhelmingly evident – not to mention the absence of fellow climbers who have met their death.
Summit fever is not only limited to the tallest peaks in the world but can be found anywhere the human spirit is challenged- including the Sahara Desert.
It has been called the toughest footrace on earth, The Marathon des Sables. Competitors have described the event as running on the surface of the sun. The race is held each year in Morocco over six-days covering 254 km which is the equivalent to six regular marathons. Competitors must carry all personal belongings and food for the entire event in their backpacks. Water, tents and medical support are supplied by the race organizers. During the 1994 race, Carabinieri (Italian police officer) Mauro Properi lost his way during a sand storm. Not wishing to endure a long drawn out death of dehydration, Mauro attempted to commit suicide in an abandoned mosque by cutting his wrists. The attempt failed – lack of water had caused Mauro’s blood to congeal the wound before the blood could escape his emaciated body. Nine days later he was found by a nomadic family and taken to an Algerian military camp. Mauro was nearly 200 miles off route.
Whether in the mountains, oceans or deserts for many adventurers the ultimate goal is to finish – at any cost.
” I think that if you see me crawling I might be in trouble, but until then I think I’m okay.” Triathlete Felicia Wilkerson, competitor # 378, Marathon des Sables.
Crossing Borders: The Pause That Refreshes
Somewhere in the Sahara Desert, The Pause That Refreshes.
Cue The Camels: Rucksack Essentials: La Musica
Music is a safe kind of high – Jimi Hendrix
It’s not that I’m a snob about music but any world traveler will tell you that one of the most essential items in your rucksack is your music. My choice of tunes has become the soundtrack for many of my journeys, often saving my sanity. I can attest that there is nothing better then listening to your iPod on a transatlantic flight, it evokes a wonderful state of being that takes you away from the crying babies and exasperated mothers. Music has protected me from exasperation when Egyptian wedding parties have still been going strong at two o’clock in the morning, as well as helping me pass days (not hours) while once waiting for a flight out of Kabul.
For me, Justin Bieber’s mindless pop just doesn’t lend itself to the experience of tearing across sun-bleached sands in the Sahara desert in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’, however, does a terrific job and always sets the mood. I have collected CDs from souks, bazaars, back alley kiosks and hotel lobbies; I’d like to think that, as a result, my taste in music is eclectic. You’ll find Middle Eastern dance, Bollywood, Japanese pop, electronica, soul, rock, tango and Neapolitan ballads on my iPod.
Like a still image, a song can transport you back to a moment in time that has been forgotten: a cognitive process that scientists have tried to understand for a long time. For instance, during the wild fires of southern California in 2009 I had a very real flashback when Shakira’s song ‘Whenever, Wherever’ blared out from the radio while I was driving along the Glendale freeway. Combined with the sight of the burning hillside, the fumes of diesel and the ‘thump, thump, thumping’ of the helicopters overhead I was immediately transported back to the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.
I see music as a synthetic acid that enhances flashbacks of our memories. Scans of the brain have shown that when people listen to music, virtually every neuron becomes more active, which may explain how I’ve overcome a learning disability, dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Music forces me to focus, which keeps my ADD at bay. Growing up, my parents could never understand why I would play music when reading or studying; they’d just shout at me to turn the record player or radio off.
Once I sit down and play my music I fall into a Zen-like state; my brain slows down to a crawl so that I can concentrate. If it were not for music I would probably be selling used furniture in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In all societies – with the exception of just one, that I know of: the Taliban – music’s primary function is collective and communal, to bring and bind people together through singing and dancing, should their culture allow. Humans have been making music since those first cavemen’s campfires.
In Kabul, Afghanistan, I spent an afternoon eating lunch that had been cooked on the sidewalk, in front of a carpet store on Chicken Street. The owner and his son stayed and had lunch with me so that they could practice their English. When Kabul was under Taliban control, paper bags, white socks, kite-flying and music were forbidden. This was serious oppression; for instance, possession of a paper bag constituted the death penalty. If they viewed that so severely, imagine what they’d have done if a flash mob broke out to Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’ – the Taliban would have nuked all of Chicken Street.
To celebrate my host’s and his son’s newfound freedom we played ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain on his chrome-trimmed ghetto blaster that he’d kept hidden from the Taliban. It must have been very amusing for the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) troops to see a couple of Afghans and one big white guy jumping to the beat of the music in front of the old carpet store. To this day, when I hear ‘Jump Around’ I can smell the pilaf cooking, feel the heat of the day and, in my mind’s eye, see the physical expression of freedom on the owner’s face and that of his son’s, as they danced with sheer joy.
Prior to a shoot in Egypt I listened to singer Amr Diab which gave me some insight into modern Egyptians’ taste and a clever way to win over friends. I phonetically learned Amr Diab’s hit ‘Nour El Ain – Habiby’. Arabic was not a language I grasped quickly; I know a few phrases like ‘tiizak hamra’: ‘Your ass is red’ (i.e. like a monkey’s); or ‘moxxu gazma’: ‘His mind is (as low and dirty as) a shoe’, a bitter insult. Still, I persevered and mimicked ‘Habiby’ before leaving the States.
Once we landed in Cairo we immediately started shooting. On a production like that there’s not much time to build a friendly relationship with your Egyptian fixer, crew members or driver. Despite the language barrier, we were all very courteous to each other and worked together really well. On day four of the assignment, we were travelling from Cairo to Giza by van; Abubak, our driver, pulled a cassette tape from a black box that he was very protective of, because it contained his personal collection of music. I was in the back of the van as the Egyptian crew sat up front, smoking Cleopatra cigarettes. The intro began to ring out and I felt butterflies in my stomach. Amr Diab sang the first lyric. I stood-up (as much as I could in the van) and belted out, ‘Habibi ya nour el-ain, ya sakin khayali, a’ashek bakali sneen wala ghayrak bibali (translation: My darling, you are the glow in my eyes, you live in my imagination, I adored you for years, no one else is in my mind). I then sang the chorus: ‘Habibi, Habibi, Habibi ya nour el-ain’ (My darling, my darling, my darling glow in my eyes).
I swear to God, one of the crew member’s cigarette dropped out of his mouth, and I could also see in the rear view mirror Abubak’s eyes widen – he nearly rear-ended the Cairo taxi in front. There was a moment of shocked silence – this big white guy from California was singing one of their most popular songs. They began to clap in unison to the beat of the song; one by one they stood up and held their hands high, swaying their hips, as we all sang ‘Habibi, Habibi’. The remaining seven days of our shoot were flawless. Every evening we came together and smoked shisha, played dominos and learned curse words in each other’s language. At the end of the shoot, and before checking in for the flight back to the States, we all stood in the Cairo International Airport parking lot to say our goodbyes and so I could pass out their payment and traditional bonuses. I noticed Abubak walk from the cab of his van with something wrapped in newspaper. He presented me with a gift: my very own hookah and shisha. Surrounded by the Egyptian crew, tears filled my eyes as I accepted their gracious offering. We’d become as close as brothers through our common love of music. As we said our goodbyes I couldn’t hold it in any longer and I openly sobbed as I hugged each of the big, burly, bearded men. They, too, began to weep as I walked away and boarded my flight.
I missed out on securing a bulkhead seat in coach and found myself wedged in a middle seat at the back of the plane. The seat had only enough space for a tiny derriere, which I don’t have – I swear, my toilet seat back home in Burbank was bigger. My legs were cramped up against the gray folding tray hanging from the seat in-front of me that refused to stay up, which seems to happen on every overseas flight I take. I should file a report to Amnesty International that United Airlines commits acts of torture by kneecapping captive consumers.
The in-flight movie was one I’d seen before: a chick movie, ‘Sleepless in Seattle’. It was time to escape into my world. I settled myself as much as I could by placing a pillow between my knees and the seat in-front of me. With my earplugs in and my iPod tuned to my favorite artist, Natacha Atlas, I opened a dog-eared page of my book: The Teachings of Don Juan, by Carlos Castaneda. Having lived in the Sonoran desert of the American southwest, and after working in the Sahara desert, I have an affinity with space, sand and time. As an anthropologist, Castaneda wrote that Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian and shaman, was an expert in the cultivation and use of various psychotropic plants, (specifically, magic mushrooms, angel’s trumpet and peyote) all found in the Mexican deserts. While under their influence, Castaneda reached a transcendental state. At cruising altitude, with the monotone whine of the jet engines and the murmurs of fellow passengers, Natacha’s song, ‘Ya Weledy (My Child)’ began and I hoped to gain similar escapism. The music then turned to an Arab symphony; in my mind a curtain rose and I played back the last few days with my Egyptian friends as Natacha sung: ‘Don’t forget your friends, don’t forget your friends. And those who think of you, and those who think of you, you don’t know what is in front of you. Don’t stray from the path.’
My own hypnotic drug – my music – was starting to kick in and I felt serenity, wedged inside my seat miles from the ground, incarcerated in a metal box. The track changed to Anthony Newley’s ‘What kind of fool am I?’ and I had a vivid flashback of my friend, Ya’akov, whom I worked with in Israel as we searched for a money shot….
The passenger window next to me was tinted yellow from years of exposure to cigarette smoke. Running down the middle of the window was a vertical crack in the shape of lightning; it was stuck halfway which allowed a blast of hot air to penetrate the cab, bringing with it familiar smells of diesel and earth. As the terrain charged by, I idly wondered which biblical figures had walked this ground, and which battles from the Old Testament had been fought there. But it was difficult to ponder such searching questions when my Israeli driver, Ya’akov’s, radio-cassette player screamed ‘What kind of fool am I?’
With both hands on the wheel, and an ever-present Marlboro dangling from his lips, Ya’akov belted out the tune, over-enunciating each lyric. A man of small stature, Ya’akov was built like a brick house, with hands like baseball gloves and eyes blue and clear.
For some, pop music is considered to be the demise of civilization but for Ya’akov, it was a blessing. Ya’akov embraced western culture by teaching himself English from the Billboard’s Hot 100 music chart – it was the reason why he strained so hard to pronounce each lyric. Although his accent was definitely Israeli, it switched to a bad Elvis impersonation when he cursed aloud, such as when the undercarriage of his truck scraped the limestone rocks in the road. He also had difficulty with slang, such as when we referred to the ‘walkie talkies’ we used on location. He called them ‘okie dokies’. So used to his description, I still find myself calling them ‘okie dokies’ even now.
Ya’akov relayed his military service history during our trip. He was a veteran of the Six-Day War and witnessed Israel’s history from the front lines. He added that the Beatles released ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ only days before the battle. He especially liked ‘When I’m 64’.
It was May 1967 when the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, expelled the United Nations’ Emergency Force from the Sinai Peninsula, including the Suez Canal. Egypt subsequently blockaded Israel’s southern ports of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba, preventing shipments of Israel’s oil imports. Nasser also had a strategic alliance with Jordan and Syria, with additional military support from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. Egypt had amassed a thousand tanks and nearly a hundred-thousand soldiers on the Israeli border. On June 5, 1967, Israel launched a pre-emptive attack against Egypt. Ariel Sharon commanded the most powerful armored division on the Sinai front, which Ya’akov’s unit was part of. Ya’akov, a machine-gunner, fought in that battle, but not before his unit was held back due to landmines and Egyptian tanks. I can only imagine that while he waited for the orders to move out, Ya’akov was drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and hoping to make it to 64.
General Sharon broke away from his plan of attack and ordered his troops to follow a camel path through the sand dunes, thus avoiding thousands of landmines and with the intention of surprising the Egyptians. Ya’akov was happy to have just survived the war. He now drove film crews around Israel and sold cartons of Marlboros to the Bedouins.
We were on an old dirt road, somewhere off Highway 79, near Nazareth. Ya’akov maneuvered around bombshell-size potholes; his truck, filled with our camera gear, swayed almost rhythmically to the cassette player. The goal was to find an appropriate filming location in the Israeli outback, one without power lines or any evidence of the twenty-first century. I let my driver – and serendipity – find the money shot.
The first time ‘happy chance’ occurred was when I shot a documentary about the Dead Sea Scrolls. We’d traveled to the cave in Qumran where the scrolls were found by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. With that segment of the documentary done, and with no further obligations, I put my headphones on and succumbed to Esquivel (which is great travel music). I let fate and inevitability take us down unmarked dirt roads. Hidden away were miles of beautiful, sweeping terrain, perfect for shooting stills and B-roll for the documentary. Since that shoot it has become a ritual to wander aimlessly about our location.
True to this tradition, Ya’akov found a spot and pulled over. He got out a small backpack stove and proceeded to make us coffee. We sat on the back tailgate, smoking cigarettes and stirring our thick, black coffee.
‘Ya’akov,’ I said.
‘How about another song?’
Without blinking, Ya’akov bellowed, ‘In-a-gadda-da-vida, honey, don’t you know that I love you? In-a-gadda-da-vida, baby, don’t you know that I’ll always be true?’
As he stood in the middle of the old dirt road in the outback of Israel, Ya’akov mimicked playing a Vox organ in D-minor while belting out his tune. ‘Jesus,’ I thought, as I recognized the melody by Iron Butterfly. And then it hit me: the song came out in May of ‘68, right after the dust settled from the Six Day War – around the time Ya’akov started learning English.
As the sun set and Ya’akov rolled out the hits, there was nowhere I would rather have been. I shouted out, ‘Hey, Ya’akov…hand me your okie dokie. I’ll charge it for you.’
That’s Life in the City of Angels: Cue The Camels, Chapter Three, Ancient Spores
A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
It seemed as if the sun had directed all its energy from purgatory to this hole in the ground. I was alone and crawling on my belly in a shroud of darkness, breathing in the suffocating heat that kept my mind from dwelling on snakes, scorpions and the curse of the mummy. With every breath I could feel spiny particles of dust enter my nostrils as they worked their way up to my sinus cavity. These tiny parasites, consisting of historic spores, would now stowaway for months, traveling secretly through my membranes, only to reveal themselves at a later date as a brown muddy discharge from my sinuses. This was not the first time living organisms had taken a free ride at my expense; it had never been guns, landmines or potential kidnapping situations that worried me the most on my adventures, rather that some exotic micro-organism would ultimately do me in.
Above me is ‘The Collapsed Pyramid’, also known as ‘Meidum, the forgotten pyramid of Egypt’. It’s situated about 100km south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. Tomb robbers originally dug the shaft I was in some 4,000 years before. They must have been small people because they certainly hadn’t wasted their time making their entrance passage any bigger than was absolutely necessary. Hanging from the ceiling like stalactites were polished knobs of tafla clay that scraped against the back of my head.
Shimmying through the tunnel with a 26-pound video camera was no mean feat. The muscles in my arms began to involuntarily contract with the release of lactic acid, which decreased their capacity to hold the camera steady. I was shooting B-roll from the point of view of a tomb robber making his way into the burial chamber below. Unable to stop my arms from shaking, I paused to rest them and to brush away what felt like a large camel flea scurrying down my forehead. I shook my head wildly, only to crack it against the clay ceiling. Taking a swat at my face, I discovered that it wasn’t a flea, but a droplet of sweat mixed with dust. I was now blinded in one eye which stung with irritation. Great!
I dug the toes of my Doc Martin boots into the soil and pushed forward with a grunt, only gaining a few inches. I paused again to look through the camera’s viewfinder only to discover that the lens had what looked like dirty rice on the front element. How long have I been shooting with that crap on the lens?
Lifting my head, I promptly cracked it yet again on the tunnel’s pitted ceiling. Cradling the camera with my left hand, I reached with my right to pull some lens tissue from my shirt pocket. The packet of tissue was moist from sweat. If I cleaned the grime with a wet tissue it would only smear into a mucky casserole. I laid the camera down to search for a dry, clean tissue, but grappling with the camera in such a confined space brought only more frustration, scraped knuckles, and bruised knees.
With the lens finally clean, I continued to shoot my progress through the earthy conduit, forcing a layer of Egyptian dirt into the crotch of my pants as I lurched further into the passage. To my surprise, the cool earth mixed with sand didn’t actually feel so bad – refreshing, even – as I wasn’t wearing underwear.
Suddenly, my progress was halted by my belt buckle that had snagged on a rock. I swayed my hips back and forth and lifted my pelvis up to free myself from the stone. I think it’s time for a breather.
I lay on my stomach and enjoyed the feel of cool soil on the family jewels, turning off the camera to save its battery life. In the darkness I became acutely aware of the aroma of earth mixed with dung, along with the delicate fragrance of diesel fuel as it permeated the passageway. The potpourri of odors came from two Egyptians at the entrance fanning air into the tunnel with torn pieces of cardboard.
‘Should I have stayed in L.A., picking up cushy assignments, shooting another silly sitcom or self-serving award show,’ I thought. ‘No!’ I said aloud, forgetting I was alone in the tunnel. Before leaving ABC, I’d gained a reputation of self-reliance in remote and hostile locations, shooting everything from mountain climbing to extreme sports, and even stunts for ABC’s daytime soap opera, General Hospital. I knew it was time to bail from that life when I was charged by my very own union (NABET) for introducing a new video camera technology: the ‘Betacam’. I became a liability for embracing new technology that would ultimately change broadcasting forever. I faced great resentment for disrupting the status quo; I had passed the point of no return. So, I left my comrades behind with their old ideas – the Betacam became my VIP pass to the wider world. Ultimately, it had brought me to this hole in the ground.
Waiting for me in the corbelled burial chamber below was Dr. Salima Ikram Ph.D., Jeremy Brill, my audio man, and our government escort, Mohammad.
Dr. Ikram was a professor of Egyptology from the American University in Cairo and a Cambridge graduate. Specializing in zoo archaeology (the study of faunal remains left behind when an animal dies or, as Dr. Ikram puts it, ‘road kill from the past’). In the field Dr. Ikram can be found wearing a sky-blue headscarf and large, round Audrey Hepburn-style sunglasses. You would imagine that a woman working in traditional Arab society, in a field dominated by males, would be unnerved or feel intimidated. However, despite her youthful age and short stature, Dr. Ikram has a very sharp tongue and can speak rapid Arabic, delivering what needs to be said like a machine gun.
To make sure her point was always understood she armed herself with a Japanese silk hand fan which she pointed and shook in the face of any man who questioned her knowledge or authority. She’d ventured into ancient tombs and ruins more times than Lara Croft and Indiana Jones combined. We all had a crush on her. She was the real deal.
I groaned and resumed recording as I continued down the tunnel. I reached an old wooden ladder which led to a den below that was about the size of a Mini Cooper’s interior. I climbed down, using one hand to hold the camera and the other to grip the rungs of the ladder. ‘Jiminy Cricket on a crutch! My back is killing me!’
‘What was that, Dave?’ Jeremy asked.
‘Nothing, Jeremy, I’m still shooting.’
Crouched in the den, I filled my lungs with more fine dust and floating orbs. I wiped my brow; I was keenly aware that we had so little time to shoot this segment.
Between the den and the burial chamber was a huge slab of limestone. In the center of the slab was a twenty by twenty-inch aperture chiseled out by the tomb robbers. The beveled cuttings from simple hand tools still looked fresh in spite of their age. Extending my arms out in front of me, I held the camera to document my progress as Dr. Ikram, Jeremy and Mo stood on the other side of the slab, watching me with great amusement as I struggled.
I stopped recording when I reached the crux of the tight squeeze, my progress somewhat hampered by my bubble butt. Handing the camera to Jeremy, I pushed and pulled, finally letting out a loud ‘Aarrgghh!’ as I felt my ass pop like a cork from a champagne bottle when I passed the apex. Finally, I was clear of the aperture. Through into a relatively spacious area, I stood upright for the first time and stretched my back.
Scattered about the hallway, leading into the burial chamber, were huge broken blocks of limestone that the tomb raiders had smashed to gain entry to the tomb. For all their tunnel-digging efforts, their prize was a red granite sarcophagus, the size of a professional snooker table. The sarcophagus probably weighed about three-and-a-half tons and it had been hollowed out for a body without the power tools we have at hand today.
The granite lid had been moved aside slightly. On closer inspection, there was an ancient wooden mallet, about the size of a man’s fist, wedged between the sarcophagus and its lid. The tomb robbers had only needed to reach into the stone coffin to plunder it of its riches.
‘Dave, tell me when to start crawling and I’ll describe what lengths the tomb raiders were willing to go to,’ said Dr. Ikram.
Let me get situated and I’ll give you a cue,’ I said.
‘Okay. But remember, if I have to stop and turn around, you promised not to shoot my bum,’ she said, referring to a pact we’d made before descending into the tunnel.
Everyone bustled into place. Mo stood silently as he waited for instructions on what he should do. We had so little time – I was hoping that after this take with Dr. Ikram I would have enough time to shoot more B-roll in the tunnel, and particularly the aperture and the burial chamber, without anyone around. Once we wrapped at this location we still had to travel back to the Saqqara Palm Club Hotel to do the ‘talking head’ part of the interview with Dr. Ikram; I just hoped it would be before dark.
I gave Dr. Ikram my spiel: ‘Okay, let’s start on this side of the aperture. I’ll start on you, as you explain who, what, where and how. I’ll then pan over to see Mo enter the aperture and follow him through. You continue to describe the tunnel as we make our way to the exit. I’ll continue to roll tape, so don’t stop. If you have to stop, just start from the top of your description, and in post-production we’ll edit snippets of you walking and talking and we can also add in the B-roll footage.’
I panned round from Dr. Ikram to see Mo crawl through the aperture. As I followed Mo through – BLAM! I smacked my forehead into the top of the opening. It must have made a loud noise because Jeremy looked up.
‘What was that?’ he asked.
‘Aarggh… start… start again,’ I said, not wanting to acknowledge that I’d smacked my head for what must have been the hundredth time.
My shins scraped against the lip of the aperture. I arched my back to support the camera in front of me and pushed with my feet to enter the den. I desperately tried to balance myself on my knees. Kerplunk! In a cloud of dust, the camera and I capsized on the rocky floor of the den.
Dr. Ikram, unaware of my listing condition, continued her narrative. ‘Meidum is thought to have originally been built for Huni, the last pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. It was completed by his successor, Sneferu, who also turned it from a step pyramid to a true pyramid, by filling in the steps with limestone. At the pyramid’s massive base are tons of scattered fragments from the collapsed outer shell that stemmed from Sneferu’s repair job. This is the robbers’ tunnel and this is the way to exit the ‘mastaba’. It’s quite a tight squeeze,’ she added.
‘You can say that again,’ I thought.
After Dr. Ikram passed through the aperture and exited the frame, I panned round, following Mo through the den to the bottom of the ladder.
Dr. Ikram continued: ‘The robbers chiseled through the tafla and in through the stone-built mastaba. There are lots of twists and turns to this whole experience, and it’s very difficult in some places because you have to go down almost on your belly and wiggle like a snake.’ She whispered, ‘You didn’t see my bum, did you?’
‘No, no. I didn’t even look in the viewfinder,’ I replied.
Now that there were four of us in the tiny den, and despite the Egyptians’ efforts to keep us cool, there was very little air circulating. We were all getting tired and cranky, and we had just minutes left to shoot this segment.
I would love to do another pass of B-roll in the tunnel alone.
I reached as high as I could, grabbing for the first rung of the ladder. I pulled myself up with one hand, holding the camera in the other. At the top of the ladder I panned round to catch Dr. Ikram climbing up behind me.
I clambered off the ladder. What was that? It felt like a spider running down the inside of my pant leg. I unclenched when I realized it was just a stream of sand and dirt I’d scooped up earlier. Shaking my legs one at a time, I started to edge backwards as Dr. Ikram walked towards me, describing the tunnel. ‘The tafla is worn and eroded because of the many visitors who have come down recently with their nice electricity. Conveniently for them, they could see exactly what was going on.’
‘Do you want to take a break?’ Dr. Ikram asked.
‘No, I just scraped my head and it bloody hurt. Let’s continue,’ I replied softly, so my audio wouldn’t be picked up on tape.
‘It really is a tight squeeze, and when one finally looks out at the end they can’t help but think, ‘Thank God, at last! Light!’’ she went on.
Pointing my camera towards him, I followed Mo’s silhouette as he exited the tunnel into the blinding light of the Sahara sun. Is this what we see when we die: a bright light at the end of a tunnel, and a shadowy figure greeting us as we make our way to God?
Dr. Ikram tried to finish her description while spluttering on the fine dust. Eventually, we were done.
Mark was waiting for us as we emerged from the tunnel. ‘Okay, guys, we have to do it again, and this time, faster! Dave, you’re leaking. What’s all that sand coming out of your pant leg?’
We all glared at Mark, our mouths open.
‘Just kidding!’ he said.
Though that segment was done our day was not over, we still had Dr. Ikram’s sit down interview to shoot back at the hotel, as well as to review the tapes, clean the equipment, charge the batteries and package tapes for shipment back to the States. We had been in Egypt for six days shooting the History Channel’s ‘Tomb Raiders: Robbing the Dead’ and it had been non-stop since landing in Cairo.
Over the next 24 hours we had to travel back to Cairo where our first priority would be shipping the tapes via DHL to Burbank, California. Then we had to drive to Giza for more B-roll of the pyramids and to find a dynamic location to interview Zahi Hawass, the Chairman of the Supreme Council of Antiquities: his interview would cost about $1,500. It’s not uncommon to pay a fee, but the lines between a proper fee and baksheesh is thin.
After the interview we were scheduled to shoot miscellaneous scenic footage with camels, horses and pyramids – hopefully without tourists in the shot. Traveling back to Cairo from Giza, I would have to strap myself on top of our van to catch moving shots of the countryside and the cityscape after entering Cairo. We were to then check into a hotel for just a couple of hours, where we’d need to unload our gear from the van to take to our room – which we all had to share. In that time batteries would need charging and gear needed packing, which meant cross referencing the carnet to our equipment again.
We called Shmuel Bernstein, our co-producer and fixer in Israel. At the Cairo airport parking lot we had to pay the Egyptian production crew, guides, tourist police and our government watcher, plus bonuses. After discreetly shooting B-roll inside Cairo airport, we were finally free to buy souvenirs, drink espresso and eat whatever we could find in the airport terminal, finally boarding a flight at 10:30 p.m. and flying to Tel Aviv, Israel. There, after clearing customs, drinking coffee and eating old Balance bars, we had to load the camera gear into Shmuel’s suburban and drive for two hours to Jerusalem, where we’d check into the King David Hotel around 2:30 a.m. There, we were to unload the gear and charge batteries yet again and take a three-hour nap, just so we could grab the camera and shoot the sunrise over Jerusalem at 5:34 a.m.
We had all that to look forward to, but not before taking a swig from a warm Fanta and racing back down to the entrance of the tunnel. We had one more pass before Mark officially pulled the plug on this location. I rolled the tape and made my way back to the burial chambers. Now alone, I ran my fingers along the narrow opening of the granite sarcophagus to the 3000 year-old wooden mallet. For a moment I visualized a thriving kingdom by the Nile, via this tangible piece of history.
Conscious of our tight shooting schedule, I quietly exited the crypt, leaving in peace any ancient soul aimlessly roaming the tomb in search of the ‘tunnel of light’ to his God.
Later, the post-production supervisor in Burbank called Mark in the middle of the night to say the footage in the Meidum burial chamber was unusable. They said the recording heads of the camera looked dirty and that there were lots of breaks in the video signal. They said they may be able to salvage only a few seconds of footage of the sarcophagus and the mallet.
Blood seemed to drain from my veins. My pride turned to liquid jelly and I lost my appetite. It was the most dreaded phone call any shooter could get and it was certainly no way to start the day. Perhaps there was a curse of the Pharaohs after all…
Mark and Shmuel were inside the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum where the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Jerusalem Division, was located. Across the street was the north wall of the Muslim Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. They were discussing the day’s schedule and the implications of a ‘ride along’ on a night patrol with Amir Ganor, Director of the Robbery Prevention Division of the IAA.
Tucked away, at the small of Amir’s back, inside his pants, was a .45 caliber handgun with walnut wood grips; on his belt sat a pouch loaded with ammo clips. How Amir sat comfortably in his unmarked jeep for hours at a time with a .45 was a mystery to me – I wondered if it left a permanent imprint on his buttocks.
We loaded up. In a caravan we followed Amir and his partner driving east through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. As we passed the east wall of the Christian Quarters, we watched as huge tour buses parked on the acutely narrow street to unload a fresh crop of pilgrims at the Jaffa Gate. Near the Citadel of the old city a Hasidic Jewish man, dressed all in black with long curls, insisted on walking down the middle of the road wildly waving his arms. Continuing south we drove by crowded bus stops where quite a few male and female Israeli soldiers with fully automatic weapons hitch-hiked for a ride.
In Shmuel’s suburban the four of us were crammed in amongst anvil cases of camera gear, audio equipment, climbing gear, boxed lunches, two cases of bottled water, assorted tools and mountains of protein bars. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding his cell phone, Shmuel talked loudly in Hebrew as he set up the next day’s shoot. Mark, with his long legs, sat behind me as he read from the Tomb Raiders’ production book and glanced occasionally out of the passenger window to take in the sights. From time to time I’d hang the Betacam out of the window, taking travel shots across the horizon.
It had been stop and go for hours as we followed Amir down deserted back roads near the Green Line. We just hoped that the camera mounts were holding steady. The afternoon sun seemed brighter there than in Jerusalem and the air was thick with humidity, making it feel hotter then it really was. The dirt road that we were traveling on was badly rutted from the scars of erosion and potholes that looked like shallow wells. With every plunge into a cavity the anvil cases in the back of the suburban leapt up before swiftly crashing down.
We parked aloft a barren hill overlooking the Palestine Territory; the terrain was very similar to southern California: a desert full of sand structures, prickly pear cacti and brown shrubs that eventually turn to tumbleweed. Jeremy was the first to leap out of the suburban to check the camera that was mounted on Amir’s jeep.
‘Dude, the suction cup is solid and the camera is filthy from specks of bug juice,’ he said.
Grabbing the Betacam and a handful of Balance bars, Mark, Jeremy and I started shooting B-roll immediately. Amir and his partner locked and loaded their automatic weapons in unison, slapping the butt end of their magazines to ensure they were sat correctly. We then proceeded east, towards the Green Line, moving as a unit to Amir’s slow and deliberate pace. Amir continually checked the ground for telltale signs of foot traffic and fresh digging. Twenty minutes into our stroll Amir came upon a freshly-dug shaft.
He pointed to the ground. Dead shrubs surrounded the cut in the earth. The shaft had smooth edges and its width was approximately 1.2m square. Just below the surface, the walls of the shaft were lined with roots that looked like the fingers of skeletons cradling protruding rocks.
‘Here! There is new soil on the edge of the shaft,’ said Amir.
Amir gave his weapon to his partner and took the longest Maglite flashlight I’ve ever seen from his pack. He started to climb down into the vertical shaft, using the freaky skeleton-like fingers as a rope ladder for his descent. At the bottom, he disappeared into a horizontal tunnel that led to a chiseled slit in the wall. Shmuel was very anxious to follow and gave us a detailed commentary on his downward climb, using Amir’s technique. ‘Okay, guys, putting my hands on the edge. I’m using my right foot to step on this rock. Okay, okay, now my left foot on this one and now down to the bottom…’
Once descended, Shmuel asked, ‘Okay, who’s going to be the first one coming down, guys?’
I’d deduced that the Betacam was much too big and heavy to film down the shaft so I grabbed the mini DV camera and started to clean the lens from dust and bug wings.
‘Okay, guys, who’s next?’ Shmuel asked again.
I looked over the edge to Shmuel. He was squatting at conduit points in the opening of the chamber. ‘You see? This was blocking the entrance. They moved the stone a little with a crowbar then broke it here to get in. Okay?’
‘Yeah,’ Mark said. He shimmied feet first into the burial chamber, inhaling as he went through the aperture. There were skulls, bones and shards of stones scattered about the burial chamber that made the ground uneven. Amir sat on some broken ossuaries, shining his flashlight on the ceiling of the tomb; the light it cast made the tomb seem even more eerie.
From above I could hear Mark rustling about as he began shooting. ‘I’m just going to get a close up of the skulls and the bones,’ he shouted.
I heard a thud then a groan. Mark had tripped but luckily, he’d not fallen on any of the bones or ossuaries. ‘I have to be very careful here,’ he said to Amir.
Peering over the edge, I made eye contact with Shmuel and handed him my camera. As I started my descent into the shaft, small streams of dirt and pebbles started raining on Shmuel who took shelter next to the slit. Stepping on the jutting stones I heard the dry ‘skeleton fingers’ crack underneath my boots.
Facing the slit, I saw for myself that the tomb raiders had chiseled their entrance unintentionally in the shape of an open mouth. As I prepared to go feet first I conjured in my mind ancient goddesses with beautiful lips, their power of temptation calling on men to see what lay beyond them.
The aperture appeared to suit those with a waist size 32 or less. Given that I’m a 34 waist, I anticipated a problem.Shmuel started giving me instructions. ‘Da’vid, face the opening and go feet first. Slide and inhale at the same time.’
I slid my right boot then my left boot into the hole leading to the tomb’s tunnel. There was the soft, muffed sound of my pants sliding against the rough stone as my feet fell into the tomb. My knees passed and my thighs followed – which was as far as I got. I was stuck between two worlds. My companions started laughing before cheering me on.
‘Push! Push, Da’vid,” said Shmuel.
From inside the tomb I heard, ‘Dave, there’s a fall of about four feet. Drop!’
There was a scraping noise as my 34 waist and belt buckle tried to shimmy. I’ve been told in the past, during romantic endeavours, that I have ‘a butt like a black man’ – something I’ve always thought of as an attractive asset, but which, in this instance, was a real liability. ‘I think I’m too big, guys,’ I told my audience, ‘I’m wedged in!’
Shmuel was trying very hard not to laugh but a giggle escaped. I too began to chuckle, which was uncomfortable considering the added pressure of stone against my waist.
‘I think I’m going to have to go back!’ I kicked my legs wildly, inhaled and pushed with my arms against the lips of the hole. With a grunt, I popped back out like a newborn baby from its mother, onto the ground up top, creating a small cloud of dust.
Tilting their heads up to the entrance, Mark and Amir laughed as Shmuel helped me up and slapped – not brushed – my backside, freeing me from the dirt and pebbles that clung to my butt. I stretched my back then pulled up my shirt to find that my stomach wore the physical proof that I’d been stuck. Humility aside, all I could think was that the tomb raiders who had made that shaft obviously didn’t like hamburgers as much as I did. I handed the camera through the small hole to Mark and left him to sort out filming in the tomb.
That’s Life in the City of Angels: Cue The Camels: Chapter Two, Al Minya, Bed Bugs and Sex
A continuation from Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Chapter One link:https://davebanks.wordpress.com/2020/06/10/life-in-the-city-of-angels-when-you-cant-get-published-fuck-it-give-it-away/
Jimi Hendrix’s version of ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was blasting out from Mark Hufnail’s BMW stereo, fuelling our adrenalin and chest-beating machismo. During Jimi’s solos, I strummed the invisible strings of my air guitar and glanced over at Mark, catching him head-banging to the beat.
Two middle-aged white guys, reminiscing about hippie living and experimental drug days, we were now living on the highs adventure brought. Potential ‘fixes’ dangled from the grueling schedule before us to shoot three documentaries throughout Middle Egypt, along the Nile. With some security concerns, Mark and I drove from his Burbank office to the west side of Los Angeles, for one last advisory meeting with the only Muslim we knew, Attallah Shabazz.
After directing Discovery Channel’s ‘Eco-Challenge, Australia’ – Mark was the Executive Producer – we’d gained a reputation for productions in remote and hostile locations under adverse conditions. We’d delivered a five-hour adventure race on time and on budget to the Discovery Channel and now we were ready for our next big challenge. Mark’s company, MPH Entertainment, had been contracted to produce three documentaries: ‘Akhenaten, Egypt’s Heretic King’, the ‘History of Sex’ for the History Channel, and ‘Tutankhamen, Egypt’s Boy King’ for A&E Network.
All three had to be shot simultaneously in sixteen days, to produce seven hours of programming. Before any overseas assignment, it was my responsibility to budget for and rent the cameras, audio gear, and small lighting package, as well as estimate how many cases of videotape we needed to take for the shoots. Before leaving the States my anxiety started, not from the threat of kidnapping by terrorist or being shot at, but due to the hell of red tape: the filling out of the carnet form or Merchandise Passport. A ‘carnet’ is an international customs and temporary export-import document that’s used to clear customs in foreign countries. Successful completion means you don’t incur duties and import taxes on your gear, or ‘tools of the trade’, if they’re to be re-exported within twelve months.
With ten anvil cases of gear, cross-referencing serial numbers and descriptions of each piece of gear was a tedious and daunting task. If just one serial number was off by one digit it could mean spending precious time and baksheesh (bribe money) in a foreign Customs office, sorting things out. The last thing I wanted to explain to a burly, foreign custom agent is why my boxer shorts had yellow smiley faces on them, having packed them in the equipment cases along with my other clothes.
Being a boy scout taught me to ‘be prepared’; if you know that there are no McDonald’s in the Sahara desert and little time during the day to stop and eat, you pack away enough food for an army. The most important thing to take, however, when shooting in exotic locations, is toilet tissue and baby wipes.
Having spent time in the Middle East previously, I took it upon myself to research the locations, assessing any potential risk. I was well aware of the current affairs in the Middle East and I was able to identify and assess a number of specific threats, not only to our production but also to us.
Beneath the massive limestone cliffs near Luxor is one of Egypt’s most popular tourist attractions: the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. This was the site of the Luxor Massacre; on November 17, 1997, 62 people were killed – mostly tourists – by Islamist extremists and the Jihad Talaat al-Fath (Holy War of the Vanguard of the Conquest).
As we went into preproduction for the three documentaries – on February 23, 1998 – Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, along with three other Islamist leaders, co-signed and issued a ‘fatwa’. This called on Muslims to kill Americans and their allies, saying it was their duty. The declaration was made seven months prior to our scheduled departure to Egypt.
I’d also read somewhere that Osama and Zawahiri hated Americans so much that they wouldn’t even drink a Pepsi. On top of all that, there was rumored to be a bounty of $16,000 for every American’s head in Egypt. I found this a bit insulting: why couldn’t they round it out? I thought I was worth at least $20,000.
Since the Luxor Massacre, tourism had been pretty much void there. To capture or kill a western film crew like us would have been equivalent to bagging a top prize. Protocol suggested that I went through specific official channels. I presented my assessment and ‘deal memo’ to one of the producers. In my deal memo it specifically requested that MPH accepted financial responsibility to have my body shipped back to the States, should anything have happened to me.
To my surprise and shock the producer said, ‘No deal’. I can only assume that she was ignorant of current affairs and only perceived the rest of the world as a studio back-lot. Unfortunately for me, her world revolved around recreational television, celebrities and Hollywood gossip. This was a serious issue that couldn’t be handled by a mid-level producer so I gave the assessment to Mark. That is how we got to be on our way.
We were meeting Attallah Shabazz at a kosher Italian restaurant. Ms. Shabazz is the eldest daughter of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X, the powerful civil rights activist of the ‘60s. Mark and Attallah have worked together on several television productions and have become very good friends over the years, to the point that Mark’s daughter, Megan, refers to Ms. Shabazz as ‘Aunty Attallah’. I’d also worked with Ms. Shabazz on various television shows in the past, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted.
We walked into the restaurant. Sitting at a table alone, in the middle of the busy eaterie, we could not help but notice Ms. Shabazz immediately. Strikingly beautiful, tall, and wearing her trademark African print pillbox hat, she acknowledged our arrival with a broad smile that seemed to light up the room.
Mark set the stage to our trip, telling Attallah that we would be the first American crew to travel by vehicle through Middle Egypt in ten years, according to our fixer in Egypt. Our security was our foremost concern; we’d be two unmistakably-American white guys shooting at various locations
Attallah interrupted Mark. ‘You know, I don’t thing you have anything to worry about, traveling through Middle Egypt,’ she reassured us. ‘The Egyptian government cannot afford another massacre, it would be devastating to their economy. You will be well protected. Think of it as an adventure, don’t let the threat of a small group of extremists hold you hostage.’
We placed our orders for our meal and our conversation turned to shop talk and a bucket full of scuttlebutt. It’s traditional amongst our staff and crew to collect the best pithy quotes during production which we then use as a catchphrase during shooting when things get a little too heated. Over our kosher pasta with meatless sauce, we told Attallah that we’d collected three favorite quotes for the History Channel’s documentary, the ‘History of Sex’:
‘Does the composer actually see the show he’s composing?’
‘Regardless of their academic achievement and expertise, try not to use any male or female archeologist over forty years of age’.
But the killer quote, and my favorite when shooting ancient Egyptian statues, was: ‘You can shoot as many penises as you want, as long as they don’t move’.
We landed in Cairo around mid-afternoon. I was still a bit spaced-out from the residue of the Ambien still in my system and I gave off an odor like fermented Gouda cheese. It had taken us close to eighteen hours to get there, not including the ten hours we’d took to prep our gear before departure. In customs, with all ten anvil cases of equipment, we started the tedious process of cross-referencing the serial numbers of the gear against our carnet. A short, oval-shaped Egyptian customs official, in a blue shirt with wet stains under each arm, raised an eyebrow. There was a bead of sweat resting on the top of his pencil mustache that I couldn’t stop staring at.
The larger gray camera case he found to be empty of the Betacam camera. I was holding it in my hands after carrying it on the plane with me. Inside the case, in place of the camera, were a dozen or so boxer shorts bearing acid-yellow smiley faces, which prompted a smirk from the agent. ‘My underwear,’ I said, pointing at the shorts.
‘Yes, yes, very nice,’ the agent said.
‘Jesus, Dave, can’t you wear regular underwear, like ‘tighty-whities’?’ Mark asked.
‘I, er, have a problem with chafing. I’ve big thighs. Boxers really help with that problem.’
‘But couldn’t you just buy regular boxers?’
‘These were on sale,’ I protested, ‘besides, I’m going to throw them away after I wear them.’
Pointing at the camera case then the carnet, in broken English, the oval-shaped agent asked, ‘Where is this item, the camera?’
‘This is the camera,’ I said, holding the camera up further and pointing to it.
‘But it’s not in the box. The carnet says ‘camera and case’. I need the camera in the case.’
Standing before him, with the camera case at my feet, I pointed again to the camera I was holding. ‘This is turning into a Monty Python skit,’ I thought. ‘This is the camera,’ I repeated, ‘I carried it on the flight so that I could use the camera case to store my clothing.’
‘I understand. But I need the camera in the box.’ This time, his voice was raised.
‘Do I understand you? That if I put the camera in the box, you’ll be satisfied?’
Opening the camera case, I pulled out my boxer shorts and all the other items I’d put in there and placed the camera into its case. I smiled at the inspector who remained stony-faced. It suddenly hit me: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
In my mind I heard Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’. The signs for baksheesh were simple – how had I missed them? The term ‘baksheesh’ describes tipping or, as the local authorities call it, ‘a charitable donation’. I call it ‘bribery’.
The government officials could have held the camera gear in protective custody until an ‘understanding’ was reached. Other signs of baksheesh could be: incorrect stamps in your passport or ink of the wrong color; your visa looking forged because the official emblem is smudged, usually after a government official has rubbed his thumb across the stamp, purposely smudging it. My favorite was the palm extended with a smile: simple, to the point and immediately recognizable for what it was. Baksheesh is a common practice across most of the Middle East; it’s common for western film crews to carry large sums of cash, just for these ‘unseen expenses’. Especially American film crews – it seems that we Americans have a reputation for throwing money at any problems we encounter. Good old American know-how.
Once our payment had been graciously accepted we cleared Egyptian customs. Porters loaded the gear onto a flatbed dolly and wheeled it out to the curb. By the time we’d finished loading the van we’d spent about $350.00 – and one carton of Marlboro cigarettes – in baksheesh…I mean, ‘charitable donations and tips’.
On the way to the hotel I decided to ride on the roof of the van with the cases of gear, to shoot B-roll of as we traveled from the airport to downtown Cairo. The driver of the van sped across El-Galaa Bridge that crosses the Nile and an insect the size of a ping-pong ball smacked me between the eyes, leaving little red blotches on my left cheek that looked like a target. I hoped that wasn’t a sign of things to come.
Our schedule was grueling and left so little opportunity for rest and recuperation that I was confused as to what day of the week it was as we rushed from the Pharaonic Village, Giza, to the Cairo Museum. Just like all shoots, we hit the ground running, apportioning no time to acclimatize. With pressure to shoot three documentaries there was no time to appreciate Egypt and its culture, it was just ‘wham, bam, thank you, ma’am’.
For two sweltering days we’d been inside the Cairo museum shooting Paranoiac antiquities, artifacts, and ancient stone penises (but not the moving kind). Alone, and in a rare moment of quiet, I was on the second floor of the Cairo Museum framing the camera to shoot an artifact belonging to the most iconic of all Egyptian pharaohs: the solid gold mask of King Tutankhamen. The 11kg gold mask sat behind protective glass on a high pedestal and I’d found just the right angle to shoot the mask which didn’t also capture my reflection in the glass. I had King Tut all to myself as I began my work.
Then, from nowhere, hordes of tourists from Germany swarmed in, surrounding me and the exhibit. The lens of the camera blocked the tourists’ view; there was much pushing and shoving as they tried to get closer – so much so that the camera and tripod were nearly sent flying. I stepped back from the gaggle of Germans and could not believe my eyes when I noticed several wearing lederhosen. It was freaking hot – at least 28°C – with high humidity and no ventilation.
One man, in the shortest shorts I’d ever seen, started to pick up the tripod and camera to move it. ‘Sir, don’t move the camera,’ I warned.
In a thick German accent, he turned and snapped, ‘You shouldn’t be here! This is for tourists!’
‘I understand, sir. We’ve all come a long way to see King Tut. Just leave the camera alone. Okay?’
He persisted, putting his hands on the tripod. I stepped forward and removed his hand, which is when he elbowed me on my left cheek. It was bang on the place where the kamikaze insect had whacked me several days before.
‘Ouch!’ I muttered, before tensing, ready to defend my space. Sanity prevailed for just a moment as I thought about Mark, and that the last thing he needed was me being thrown out of the Cairo Museum for fighting with a tourist. Luckily, at that moment, a woman – also in leather lederhosen and thigh-high white stockings – grabbed the man’s arm and started scolding him in German. None of the other tourists seemed interested in our struggle for territory as they snapped pictures and left. Now, at least, I was alone with the king, sporting a painfully bruised cheek.
Eventually, we’d shot every stone penis in the museum – erect and non-erect. Our work was over in Cairo and now it was time for our road trip through Middle Egypt.
Attallah was right: we were escorted by seventeen Egyptian bodyguards as we traveled south along the Nile Delta to Luxor in Middle Egypt. Our caravan was made up of several vehicles, including a sky-blue armored personnel carrier complete with fifty-caliber machine gun, and a black 4×4 Mercedes-Benz SUV that carried our four bodyguards. They sat in comfort, in their polyester suits and sunglasses. Except for the front windscreen, the side and rear windows were bulletproof glass, tinted almost black. In the middle of each passenger window were gun ports that looked like small, black puckered lips, ready to give any adversary a stinging kiss of death. On occasion you would see copious amount of smoke stream from the gun ports; most of the time the bodyguards sat in their SUV with the air conditioning on full blast as they played their favorite Egyptian pop music. As a result, the SUV vibrated with a ‘thump, thump, thump’. Jimi Hendrix, it was not.
In contrast, we were stuck in a white minibus, with painted hieroglyphic symbols and a giant portrait of a pharaoh on the hood. The interior seated roughly ten passengers; it would have held more but our camera gear filled the back of the coach. With our security so obviously in tow, this bus shouted ‘tourist on board!’
Driving in Egypt is not for wimps or the faint of heart, which is why I was happy to let Mohammad, our driver, take the challenge. I’d assumed we were safe outside the city of Cairo, where car horns blast continually, insults are spat and universal hand gestures given at the slightest provocation; little did I realize just how dangerous the road to Luxor was. Most roads had two lanes of tarmac, but the condition of the ground varied greatly. The scariest part was when giant trucks frequently passed other trucks already passing cars. I lost count of my ‘sphincter twinges’ during the day but they went off the scale when we drove in the dark. It was a Mad Max movie in reality; the Egyptians didn’t use their headlights until they thought they saw an oncoming vehicle – then they’d flash their lights. Thank God we were in an official convoy, with an armored personnel carrier leading the caravan.
We made numerous stops along the way, shooting B-roll to enrich our documentaries. I shot video and still photographs at each location for ‘cut-away footage’ that could be added to scripted voice-overs or expert interviews. This adds greater dimension to the storylines in our productions, an alternative to the traditional ‘talking head’ pieces. As we continued our trek to Luxor day turned to night. Suddenly, our motorcade came to a complete stop. We were near our destination of Al Minya, at a goat crossing.
I grabbed the camera and jumped out of the van. I started shooting the goat herder and his goats against the van’s headlights when four tourist police intervened. With their Uzi machine guns they hustled us back into the van.
‘Jesus! What was that all about? It’s just goats,’ said Mark.
‘Maybe someone just got his goat?’ I chuckled at my own joke.
One of the security men from our convoy came into the van, still wearing his sunglasses. ‘Keep down! Keep down!’ he said. ‘A madrasa is down the road: the most radical of Islamic schools in Egypt. We believe Osama Bin Laden is inside. The goats are a way to stop people, so they can see who approaches. Just stay down.’
There was a lot of movement outside the van and raised voices. The goats still surrounded us. A second bodyguard came to the door. ‘The local authorities and the village elders fear retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists at the madrasa for hosting you Americans. We cannot stay here or in Al Minya. We have to find another place to stay the night. Please, stay down, and do not get out of the van.’
We waited, keeping a low profile as our security team herded the goats out of the way. The goat herder had disappeared. After traveling south for half an hour, our security team found an abandoned hotel outside an unnamed village. Oddly, there was a flickering light-bulb several floors up. Despite our hesitation, we had been at it for sixteen hours and we were dead tired. We carried the cameras and battery chargers up the dark, shadowy, concrete stairs that offered no handrail. I was so dazed from lack of rest that when I plugged in the charger for the camera batteries I forgot that Egypt’s electrical current was 220v. I neglected to plug in the transformer and the charger blew like an indoor firework display. As the sparks flew, I grabbed the plug and pulled it out of the socket, only to get a jolt. ‘Crap! Crap! Crap!’ I shouted.
‘Are you okay?’ said Mark.
‘Yeah, I’m okay. I just feel like a complete idiot.’
‘You’re tired, Dave, don’t beat yourself up. We’ve another charger,’ said Mark.
As I moved away from the socket I heard a loud crunch. Lifting my boot, I saw the largest cockroach I’d ever set eyes on. The floor of the building was concrete and it was cold; the walls looked to be peppered with bullet holes and the windows didn’t bear glass but iron rods shooting up from the windowsill.
Mark looked out. It was deadly quiet outside. ‘Hey, Dave, there are guards outside, on the ground. I think this is serious.’
The flickering light was a beacon to a frenzy of moths, unidentified flying insects, cockroaches and five-legged bugs, the like of which I’d never seen. We were too exhausted to care and slept on the floor, only to have the creepy-crawlers roam freely on and around us. ‘Mark, are you awake?’ I asked.
‘Not really. It’s difficult when you have creatures crawling on your face. Shit! One just tried to crawl up my nose! Jesus H Christ.’ Mark was now sitting up. He was pale with bags under his eyes and desperate for some sleep.
‘Hey, why don’t we use the djellaba I picked up in Cairo?’ I suggested. ‘We could wrap it around ourselves like the Shroud of Turin. We could wrap our kefflyehs around our faces too, to keep the marauders away.’
‘Great idea. Let’s do it,’ said Mark.
So, there we were: two guys from California in Middle Egypt, beneath a winking light on a concrete floor, shoulder to shoulder and draped under a makeshift shroud. Neither Mark nor I remembered much of the drive from the abandoned ‘roach’ hotel; we slept most of the way. We eventually pulled up at a deserted parking area. Before us was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, which sat atop a series of colonnaded terraces, accessed via long ramps that were once graced with gardens. Built into the limestone cliff face that towered above the temple, there were three layered terraces reaching 29m high.
It was midday, and at least 40°C. Walking up the ramp in the scorching heat was going to be challenge. I drank my last bottle of hot orange Fanta, grabbed the camera and started shooting Arab workmen breaking up the limestone walkway to the temple. It seemed to me to be perfect B-roll for the documentary, but what I didn’t realize at that moment was that they were replacing the bloodstained path where the 62 people had been massacred nearly a year before.
Hot, hot, hot! The tripod legs burnt if touched; the metal of the camera was sizzling and I could feel the heat of the scorching sand through my Doc Martin boots. I took off my kefflyeh, soaking it with water and placing it over the camera, so as not to burn up the electronics. Our Egyptian crew stayed in the van with the air conditioning on and with the hood up to keep the engine cool. Our four bodyguards sat in the comfort of their Mercedes-Benz SUV, smoking and listening to music. Mark and I continued to shoot for two hours, taking breaks in the shade of the Temple’s columns. The Sahara heat was unrelenting and oppressive, though, and I gave up when the glue on my boots began to melt. Because my kefflyeh was on the camera, the back of my neck was naked to the sun. It was now horribly blistered. Back in the van, a sunburned Mark took a long drink from a Fanta he’d kept hidden.
‘You bastard!’ I said. The sun’s heat lost its grip as I stepped into the van. Mark leaned over and pulled out another warm Fanta, handing it to me. ‘Cheers, Dave. You ready to go home?’ he said.
I’d lost all reference to time. I had no idea what day it was or how long we’d been in Egypt. This often happened to us when documenting fragments of time long since gone – you lose your own place in time.
We barely made our flight back to the States and had to sacrifice taking a shower and changing into clean clothes. I wasn’t too upset; there’s something magical about carrying the sands of the Sahara in your boots with you as you arrive home.
Days later, I was back at the NBC Studios. The guests that night were David Spade and Kate Capshaw, the musical element provided by Deana Carter. I was still painfully sunburned and therefore moved slowly; I could continually smell the odor of fermented Gouda and, during rehearsals, I found a strip of bubble wrap that seemed to resemble the blisters on the back of my neck.
During lunch at the NBC Commissary I told my cousin, Hank Geving, who was also a cameraman on the show and dedicated reader of Ancient Egyptian history, about Queen Hatshepsut and her temple. She was the first great woman in recorded history, the forerunner of such figures as Cleopatra and Catherine the Great, and female pioneers of our own age, such as Madonna. He listened intently, and it gave me a huge glow of satisfaction to have stood where she had, centuries before. Many people living there don’t acknowledge that there’s life outside Hollywood. How wrong they are.
Life in the City of Angels: When You Can’t Get Published, Fuck It, Give It Away!
Cue the Camels
Copyright © Dave Banks. The right of Dave Banks to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.
FOREWORD by JAY LENO
I wasn’t sure what to expect when Dave asked me to write the foreword to this book. I’ve always known Dave as the guy behind the camera with the very loud laugh. His audible approval of my jokes has always proved wonderful feedback; sometimes, his chuckles would escalate to a full belly laugh that echoed across the stage during rehearsals.
I’d clearly notice Dave’s absence for weeks or months at a time – his giggles only heard in my memories – until, unexpectedly, his distinctive howl would come from behind the camera once again. Dave’s disappearing and reappearing act had been going on ever since I took over the Tonight Show in 1992, but it wasn’t until reading ‘Cue the Camels’ that I learned Dave was freelance – booking out of my show to shoot news and documentaries in the Middle East and North Africa.
As a solo journalist he covered the war in Afghanistan which goes some way to explaining why he always seemed to have a smile on his face. He was just happy to be somewhere he wasn’t being shot at or pursued by a foreign army. He appreciated the warm, comfortable studio and that he was not lost somewhere in a landmine field, however much I like to think it was my jokes and free coffee that kept the constant smile on his face.
Within these pages Dave has written gung-ho, self-deprecating, wildly engaging accounts of his exploits, with all the behind-the-scenes high-jinks that go into shooting news and documentaries across the world.
In his chapter ‘Dog Biscuit and Noah’s Ark’ Dave perfectly describes his decompression from one of his trips back to the Tonight Show: ‘Forty-eight hours ago I was in eastern Turkey, a target of the Turkish army, avoiding the PKK, dodging Kurdish smugglers and circumventing landmines on a goat trail.
Recovering from jet lag, painfully sore calves, busted blisters and jock itch, I was now hobbling about Stage 3 at the NBC studio lot in Burbank, California. I’d picked up a couple of days’ shooting on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. The guests that night were Martin Short and Mia St. John, the music provided by Santana and Rob Thomas (which I was particularly excited about). The best part of the gig was the perks: free coffee, pastries, camaraderie and good laughs.’
Dave welcomes you to both of his worlds.
I once told Dave, ‘Whatever you do, make it entertaining, and don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself.’ I’m glad to see he took my advice and applied it to ‘Cue the Camels’.
‘Doubt consumes the spirit; without risk, our destiny is ultimately written by others.’
‘We were not mentioned in S. E. Hinton’s book, ‘The Outsiders’. We were the nameless kids from north Tulsa whose economic standing was somewhere between the Socs and the Greasers. We were the nerds, the geeks and socially inept when it came to girls. But, with our parents’ Bell and Howell 8mm cameras, we charged other kids 50 cents to be in our war movies. Our little band of brothers found its place in life.’
~ Dave Banks
While watching the History Channel, you may be captivated by a shot of a majestic sunset in the Sahara Desert; Bedouins and their camels enter the frame and cross your television screen, their black silhouettes strolling across the blaze of the sun. This image burns into your imagination and transports you from your recliner to a place you’ve never been. Then the program fades to black and a Snuggie commercial begins. You ignore the ad and replay that desert scene in your mind. A thought may pop into your head from time to time: just how did they capture that incredible footage?
Have you ever wondered who filmed the rock climber two thousand feet up, dangling from the granite walls of Yosemite? Or considered how a cameraman got those claustrophobic shots deep inside the ancient tunnels beneath the pyramids of Egypt? How about the intense handheld footage of the Los Angeles riots – what kind of cockamamie person would voluntarily put himself into that chaos? Well, I’m ‘that guy’. In this book, I’ll bring you a unique glance into the two worlds I inhabit and the difficulties I’ve had to endure.
Few people realize, that to film documentaries in exotic locations, a cameraman, or ‘shooter’ may be forced to brave blinding sandstorms, the blistering heat of the day, ‘bone-marrow freezing’ nights, as well as experience the sharp crack of gunshot followed by the screaming hiss of bullets as they pass by his head. He’d need to survive the projectile side-effects of eating what some cultures call ‘delicacies’, but what we would simply consider ‘repulsive’.
As a result of being dispatched all over the globe, I’ve embarked on the types of trips few travelers ever experience, and I’ve done this whilst lugging thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment. I’ve risked life and limb for the sole purpose of sharing the farthest reaches of the world for the audience back home. I’ve covered expeditions, mountain climbs, archeological digs, adventure races, civil strife and war. I’ve been shot at; I’ve been lost in the Sahara desert, and I’ve been chased by a foreign army. I’ve strayed into a landmine field twice and had a bounty on my head. And I’ve also covered a story on fainting goats. For twenty years, I’ve taken huge risks to bring the world into your living room.
It’s quite normal for me to one day be working with celebrities in the air-conditioned studios of Hollywood, then the next, shooting film at hostile locations in the Middle East.
The material in this book has been adapted from years of journal entries that started as dry, factual lists, production notes, itineraries and equipment checklists. The handwritten notes on these lists grew to be the heart and soul of this memoir. Increasingly, my journals have become utterly treasured; in some cases, they literally kept me sane during my riskiest adventures.
They’re tales that I have lived, not imagined. You’ll glimpse what happens behind the scenes and the lengths I’ve travailed to capture those magic moments or ‘money shots’, always with a zany, international cast and crew close behind. This book brings to the reader the hardships and escapades that go into filming on location, with a (sometimes dark) sense of humor. Hopefully, it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of how anonymous shooters like me see the world, and what we endure in order to make a living in our chosen profession.
This book also offers the reader the unique opportunity to view many of the clips I’ve treasured, via QR technology, as I refer to them within these pages.
At times, the search for the fabled money shot means stepping away from the familiar, and into a place where life seems to balance on the razor-edge of reality.
CUE THE CAMELS
Assignment: Shooting Eco-Challenge Promo
Location: Sahara desert, Morocco
Mr. Abdul Salam, my Moroccan fixer and driver, had found the perfect setting for the money shot. A perfectly stunning, cinematic backdrop that could have been borne from Lawrence of Arabia; we imagined a bright azure sky, puffy white clouds, the Sahara sand expanding towards the horizon and the midday sun hanging in the air.
The Betacam was on the tripod, locked off and shooting directly into the sun. The idea was for five Tuareg riders on their camels to circle the camera, creating silhouettes against the desert sky. As each Tuareg passed, a burst of sunlight would splash, striking the lens, hopefully creating great B-roll. At least, that was the plan.
As I started to set up the shot, and without warning, I was subjected to a forceful whack to the back of my head. As I lay semi-conscious, face down on the hot, sun-baked ground – and with the legs of the tripod entangled in my lower limbs – I heard a loud, gassy belch.
The attack was not by some crazed Jihad but a long-necked, long-legged, wooly dromedary with a Chris Brown attitude. The twenty-seven pound camera teetered on my back and shoulder, the lens resting on my head. Interrupting the faint sound of the camera’s internal recording heads rolling was another belch: a loud, guttural siren accompanied by a violent, sputtering snort. Fumes of rotten vegetables contaminated the otherwise unsullied air and a cloud of scattered earth fell over my face.
The heat from the desert floor forced its way through my clothes, searing my torso and palms like a steak. I opened my eyes to a vertical world and immediately recognized the image inches away from my face: a hairy camel hoof with two protruding toenails on a broad pad about the size of a dinner plate.
I then became aware that fluid was trickling down my forehead, behind my right ear and towards my neck. ‘Oh, God,’ I thought, ‘I’m bleeding!’
Still disoriented, the sensation that the back of my scalp was soaking wet and that my shirt was firmly plastered to my back made me reach for the nape of my neck. I just hoped my hand wouldn’t come back red. I quickly deduced that I wasn’t horrifically bleeding. Why was I so wet? Jesus, did I urinate on myself? If so, how did it get up here? Pawing at my neck, it came to me why I was drenched in such foul-smelling gunk.
There are two myths about camels spitting. Firstly, camels do not spit habitually, they only spit when provoked. Secondly, camels do not ‘spit’ saliva but the partially digested contents from the chambers of their fore-stomachs.
When camels are angry or threatened, they ‘burp up’ some of their cud. Once the cud is in their mouths they angrily wield their heads like mad birds. The cud is propelled from their mouth onto their droopy lips, which they fling in the direction of their victim, which, in this case, was me. The amount of camel spittle foisted on a victim could cover their upper torso, and the color is tied to their dietary intake. It appeared that this camel had been eating dates, grass or wheat, as I was covered in a sickly, tea-green colored ‘smoothie’, not that it looked appetizing or nutritious sliding off my skin.
The camel’s slobber was sticky and thick, like cheap hair gel. With helping hands and laughter from the Tuareg, the tripod and my legs were divorced without damage to the camera or the lens, though I couldn’t say the same for my ego. I turned the camera off (it had been in recording mode, capturing the attack in all its disgusting detail), making a mental note to review the footage later in the day.
The laughter and pointing of fingers continued as I dusted myself off and tried to regain some composure. Turned out my baseball cap had been knocked off during the camel’s SmackDown, and as I looked at my reflection in the lens of the camera, I could see that my face had been powdered with beige earth. A huge cow-lick of hair came straight up from the back of my head – sort of a backwards Donald Trump coiffure.
With my breath and a soft brush, I swept sand and grime from the exterior of the camera, using my toothbrush to clean the nooks and crannies around the lens. Fortunately, there was no camel drool on the equipment.
Still unaware of what had pissed the camel off, I moved more cautiously and drafted Abdul to stand sentry behind me. Abdul didn’t want to be there either, but since his name means ‘Servant of the Peaceful One’ he had no choice. Without further incident I got the pretty silhouette shot I was going for.
Before leaving the location, I played back the tape to check that: a) it had recorded, and b) that there was no break up or other problems with the image. I then gestured to each Tuareg to look through the viewfinder at what we’d shot. Regardless of their image, the Tuareg had all their teeth, something I noted when kindly rewarded with smiles of approval at the footage.
We wouldn’t be able to come back and reshoot the sequence which, I think, after departing any location is the worst phone call a shooter can get. Such instruction is usually from the editor or executive producer, saying the footage is damaged, unusable, or a combination of the two. It’s often referred to by a technical term: ‘Shit!’
This has happened to me on a couple of occasions; each time I felt the blood draining from my veins and my self-esteem turn to liquid. It takes weeks to recover from ‘the call’. As a result, you learn to be militant when cleaning the camera gear and checking the tapes. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver sparkling footage that is in focus and not overexposed nor underexposed, which has no swish pans or tilts, and with just the right amount of headroom. The terrifying truth is that when you fuck up, people will see your mistake. And, in some cases, when you fuck up, millions will see your mistake. It’s every shooter’s fear.
We take every precaution, including hand-carrying the camera and footage onto flights, using leaded bags and DHL delivery. Our reputation – the only marketing tool we have – is based on what we deliver. As we often say: ‘You’re only as good as your last shot’.
With the Land Cruiser loaded, I sat in the cab. I grabbed the Snoopy air freshener from the rear-view mirror and deeply inhaled, hoping for a little relief from the stench of my sweat mixed with camel smoothie. My shirt, now dry, was grafted to my back and needed peeling from me like dead, sunburned skin. With the windows down, we headed back to our base to wash off the stains of the day.
My practice, while on location, is to have two changes of work shirts and trousers. When I’m back at base, I stand in the shower with all my clothes on, lather-up with a bar of soap and scrub them clean. This is an old practice that has worked well over the years. After rinsing and wringing, I then hang them on a makeshift clothes-line made of parachute cord, which also makes up part of my kit; come morning, my clothes will always be dry.
My shirts are ExOfficio – they’re as expensive as hell but worth every cent. They’re quick drying, sun-protective and they have great pockets. Cargo pants are Columbia’s convertible trousers; they also dry quickly and (most importantly) they have a gusseted crotch to help facilitate freedom of movement for increased comfort. With regards to my underwear and socks, I just estimate how many weeks I’m gone and simply toss away the skivvies and socks at the end of each day. Someone once suggested that I should buy ‘Depends for Men’; a very stupid idea: in the desert your ‘boys’ need to breathe, not drown.
On one occasion I’d underestimated my stay on a shoot in the Sahara and was forced to turn my underwear and socks inside out for over a week. With no stores in sight and as cotton takes forever to dry it was easier to toss aside and go commando. What a mistake! I suffered horrific chafing and the worst heat rash I’ve ever had. Both my inner thighs were rubbed red-raw along with my testicles: for three weeks I had to continually apply medicated cream to my infected crotch before the rash cleared up. I walked as if I had a spiked bowling ball between my legs. It was a very painful lesson to learn.
After a hot shower – a definite rarity – we went for dinner. The meal consisted of (stringy) chicken shawarma pitas and my favorite food: fried falafel dipped in hummus, washed down with warm orange Fanta. Our schedules, jam-packed with driving to locations, shooting interviews and gathering B-roll, afforded little time to eat; once we leave the plane, we hit the ground running, existing only on Balance bars, Coca-Cola and espressos.
We ate dessert outside under the Milky Way, which seemed almost within our reach. Little separates heaven and earth in the desert.
It’s customary in the Middle East to socialize in the evening, smoking shisha (apple tobacco from a hookah pipe) and mulling over the day’s events. Sitting in molded plastic patio chairs, we smoked, drank hot tea, and watched an Arab soap opera on a black and white television. One of the antennas was wrapped with aluminum and had been sculpted to look like a rabbit. The TV was connected to a car battery that had been decorated with Hello Kitty stickers. In the distance, breaking the serenity, I heard a camel bellowing. Any more relaxed and I’d have been in a coma.
Before going to bed, I viewed the tapes once more, labeling them with dates and a quick description. I cleaned the gear, charged batteries, made production notes, did some petty cash book-keeping, read the itinerary for the following day, checked the map for locations, and finally set three alarms for 5 a.m. to shoot the sunrise. It was 2 a.m. before I finally got to sleep.
Assignment: Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt Shoot
Location: approximately mid-way between Dakhla and Bahariya Oasis – Western Egypt
Mark Hufnail, executive producer and long time friend, hired me to shoot ‘The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt’ documentary. We were deep in Egypt’s interior, beyond Bahariya Oasis, and we’d been shooting non-stop for days. I relished shooting at midday, capturing waves of heat rising from the scorching sand and apparitions of lakes beyond our reach.
I appreciated the power of the sun from the very first time I went to the Sahara. I’d rested my cheek on the side of the camera while looking through the viewfinder; my face burned with such intensity that, for a couple of days, I had a large, red, rosy birthmark on my cheek. From that first experience, I learned to soak my kefflyeh (scarf) with water and wrap it around the camera to keep it cool.
For late afternoon shooting, I picked a location facing west to where the sun was due to set. The stage was a large, symmetrical star sand dune (star dunes are pyramidal mounds with slip-faces, on three or more arms, that radiate from the high center of the mound. They tend to accumulate in areas with multidirectional winds, a supreme annoyance I often have to deal with).
It was to be the last shot of the day and a welcome relief from the desert heat. If all went well, this would be the money shot. I’d planned the scene with two Bedouins in the foreground. As they led their camels across the top of the sand dune they’d appear as silhouettes against the giant orange ball that was the setting sun. I just hoped the camels would prove to be co-operative.
Camels are known as the ‘ships of the desert’; they can travel across desert sands with a speed of up to eight to ten m.p.h. They can maintain this speed for longer periods of time over great distances – about thirty miles a day – even with extremely heavy loads.
With this knowledge, I decided to start shooting three minutes before sunset. Inwardly pleading for all the planets to be in alignment and for a little luck to go my way, I hoped to get one good take of the Bedouins and camels passing in-front of the setting sun.
Houston, we have a problem. As I started recording, the winds picked up. Sand started to blow in all directions, spiraling around me.
‘Holy crap! Not now!’ I muttered.
I was shooting on a long lens with a two-time extender, which meant that any small movement of the camera, no matter how subtle, caused the image to be shaky. Out of fear of getting ‘the call’ and being told that the footage was unusable, too shaky, or too shitty, I went into madman overdrive.
I’d already taken precautions by tightening the tilt and pan head and dropping the legs of the tripod to their lowest point above the ground. I dumped all the contents from my backpack and filled them with camera batteries, my Nikon 35mm camera, bottled water, rocks, sand…anything I could get my hands on that would hold weight. I took the anvil case and tried building a protective wall around the camera. The camera’s shaking stabilized, in spite of the many gusts of wind.
I grabbed the walkie-talkie. I had less then three minutes left to get the shot. I called out, ‘Mark, cue the camels. Mark!’
‘Copy. Cue the camels.’
I had two minutes and twenty-four seconds left before the sun set. The frame was empty, no Bedouins or their camels in sight. With adrenalin in my throat, I barked, ‘I don’t see them! I don’t see the camels. Cue the camels! The sun is setting!’
There was a pause. Then Mark replied, ‘They’re going…and they’re going!’
Looking in the viewfinder I saw the first Bedouin enter the frame. Jesus! It was such a relief to see them. ’Okay, there they are… there they are… keep them going… keep them going. Good, good.’
Two minutes and twelve seconds until sunset.
A gust of wind blew hard against the camera and my face was spiked with sand pellets. As the last Bedouin and his camel exited the frame, I had one minute and fifty-six seconds left before the sun went to bed.
I needed them to turn around and cross the frame again. Straining not to overreact, I grabbed the walkie-talkie. ‘Mark, turn them around. Turn them around! Hurry, hurry…turn them around. Turn the camels around!’
‘Okay, we’re turning them, we’re turning them. Stand by…’
I could see the sun accelerating in its fall. One minute and forty seconds of light left. Now I was pleading: ‘Hurry! Hit them in the ass or something!’
‘We’re hurrying! Camels don’t turn on a dime, Dave, we’re hurrying!’
The first camel had its tail up. ‘That camel better not take a crap,’ I warned.
Mark, very calmly, replied: ‘Nothing I can do about that, Dave, sorry.’ I held my breath and prayed that the camel didn’t evacuate its bowels. Slowly, the two Bedouins and their camels sauntered across the frame without incident and exited the shot.
‘Dave, Dave, did we get it? Are we done?’
I stopped recording and checked the tape. I’d managed to get three good passes with just a little shaking that could be minimized in post-production. After a deep sigh, I put the walkie-talkie to my mouth. ‘That’s a wrap,’ I said. I celebrated this small achievement with a little ‘end zone’ dance before sitting down by the legs of the tripod to enjoy the sun’s departure from the day.
My adrenalin had faded and I became aware of a great stillness surrounding me. The Sahara had toyed with me but now, as I sat in the desert, I felt blessed to be there, with only Mother Nature as an audience.
There was a silence. A silence so great, I could actually hear the earth breathing.
Random Thoughts: Washed Upon the Shores of this Tiny Blue Marble
The Sahara is a great leveller, making all men equal regardless of their station in life. So, when you come across another soul within this vast arena of sand, you stop, share, and remind yourself that here, we are all brothers.